There’s no need to grump and growl over St. Louis City SC’s unsightly expulsion from the MLS playoffs — even if the two-game sweep by Sporting KC was a harsh and brutal way to end City’s enchanting inaugural season.
The outcome was disappointing. If you’re good enough to win the MLS Western Conference – as a first-year expansion team, no less – there’s no excuse for flickering out so quickly in the postseason. That’s a justifiable reaction. And there was added frustration in getting bounced by the rival Sporting KC.
But this drubbing won’t define City’s season or diminish the magnitude of what the franchise accomplished in its first precious season of existence. It won’t lessen the joy of watching this lovable team stun the MLS by setting a record for single-season wins (17) by an expansion team while finishing first in the Western Conference table.
If City’s hard fall at the end of the 2023 season hurts, it’s because of the team’s sudden, instantaneous, gloriously unexpected rise to the highest place an MLS expansion team has occupied. Rather than dwell on this postseason defeat, I much prefer to focus on the immense list of positives that made this season so special. In the battle of conflicting emotions, satisfaction defeats disappointment in a blowout.
A first-round elimination won’t retroactively lower the noise, dull the good vibrations or diminish the incredible experience of packing into CityPark to celebrate a new era of St. Louis soccer. This was incredible fun. A festival. A season of song and success and smiling happy people that adored their team and embraced the company of each other.
This marvelous home field advantage was more than just winning games; it created a mood that lifted the collective morale and spirit of unity of everyone who marched into the venue wearing City colors.
There’s no way to accurately measure the value of what City meant to the City.
After waiting in vain for the MLS to place a franchise in the cradle of American soccer, the wondrous reality was even better than the dream. The bitterness of defeat will be washed away by the deep gratitude of having a team to love and call our own – and having that team love us right back. This powerful relationship will endure through the coming generations. That’s infinitely bigger than the outcome of City’s first-ever postseason series.
The worst part about losing is knowing that the party is over long before we wanted to leave. Closing time came earlier than expected, and we weren’t ready for the lights to go out. We were left to process this.
From a pragmatic standpoint, I believe we could have seen this coming. If we look at the season’s trajectory, it makes more sense.
– After beginning the season with a record-setting five consecutive victories, the most by an MLS expansion team, St. Louis went 12-12-5 over the remainder of the regular season. Tack on the two postseason losses, and the record is 12-14-5 since the 5-0 start. Opponents gradually adjusted to STL’s high-pressure system that left them flummoxed early on.
– St. Louis City did not benefit from the break in the schedule to accommodate the Leagues Cup, a competition that included all 29 MLS teams and 18 Liga MX clubs from Mexico. From mid-July to mid-August, dates normally reserved for MLS regular-season action were repurposed to play the tournament’s 77 games. Before the break, City was 13-8-2. After returning from the extensive pause, St. Louis posted a record of 4-4-3. We can make that 4-6-3 after the swift elimination by Sporting KC.
– Sporting KC peaked at the perfect time, making this unit an extra-dangerous opponent in a first-round series. Winless in its first 10 matches of the MLS regular season, Kansas City’s combination of urgency, a healthier roster and key pieces of talent produced the league’s best record since early May. The excellent coach Peter Vermes did a brilliant job of guiding his squad through unusual circumstances and had KC primed for success.
– St. Louis City SC drifted into a bad spot late in the season after an early clinching the conference title. If we include the postseason exit, City finished the campaign by losing four consecutive games and was outscored by nine goals. This, despite leading the Western Conference with a +17 goal differential.
– Before the horrendous late slide that carried over into the playoffs, City had a +26 goal differential that didn’t hold. This wasn’t the team that we’d watched from late February through late August. In its last 12 matches including the postseason, City went 3-6-3.
No matter the scenario, it isn’t easy to win and venture deep into the postseason. But logically speaking, this had to be especially difficult for a first-year MLS franchise that peaked early and gradually came back to earth … and crashed hard in its final descent. This cannot be denied: St. Louis City SC was vulnerable.
A historically superb MLS expansion team struck out. Staying with the baseball metaphor, please let me point out something that has value in shaping our perspective. City SC coach Bradley Carnell is hardly alone in feeling a kick to the ribs caused by postseason malfunction.
In his first year as manager in St. Louis, future Hall of Famer Tony La Russa took the Cardinals to the postseason in 1996. The Redbirds hadn’t been there since 1987, and the instant success was exhilarating. But La Russa didn’t win the National League pennant until 2004, his ninth season in St. Louis. His teams didn’t seize the World Series trophy until his 11th season. But by the time La Russa left the Cardinals to retire, the franchise had won three NL pennants and two World Series over his final eight seasons.
It’s not like St. Louis City SC has been pounding on the postseason door for 10 seasons and left abandoned and desperate after an extensive sequence of failures. This was City’s first attempt at postseason glory. They lost … but stop and think about how much they won.
Think about the entertainment they provided. Think about how City enhanced the St. Louis sports scene – and the city landscape. A team picked to finish last in the preseason conference forecasts went full renegade in style and attitude and set records in defiance of the traditional mainstream expectations. The team and the fans were 100 percent aligned. The bond was immediate and unbreakable.
That means a helluva lot more than winning a playoff round in their first crack at it. This team was not ready to compete for a championship. That’s the truth. And while it’s OK to want more, we shouldn’t be greedy about having it all, everything, do it now, get it done, right away. This franchise gave us many reasons to rejoice. Postseason success will eventually come; this organization has exceptional vision and leadership and roster flexibility. This remarkable first season left us with even more to look forward to.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app. Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz